Was he a victim of an anti-Semitic attack or a violent, racist, right-wing provocateur?
On Saturday evening some 5,000 international justice minded individuals packed Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square. Dozens, maybe hundreds, within the pro-Palestinian crowd were Jewish.
At the same time a counterprotest was held by Canada’s most influential and best organized fascistic group. About 100 Jewish Defence League members and supporters rallied in the hope of provoking or instigating a conflict. They succeeded and by the next morning the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) and B’nai B’rith were claiming a 55-year old Jewish man was beaten by pro-Palestinian protesters. By Sunday evening Toronto Mayor John Tory, Ontario premier Doug Ford, Conservative party leader Erin O’Toole and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had all tweeted out about anti-Semitism at protests.
There is, of course, more to this story. Footage has emerged of the main “victim” – who is actually on the cover of a press release titled “CIJA Concerned by wave of violence and antisemitism connected to conflict in the Middle East” — wielding a knife and swinging a bat. Another video shows a JDL member swinging a stick wildly at another individual.
It is altogether unsurprising that the JDL would instigate a confrontation and then other Israel lobby groups would claim Jews were being attacked. A variation of this has taken place on numerous occasions. What was different on this occasion is that the JDL thugs appear to have bit off a bit more than they could chew and ended up running away.
With the tacit support of the Jewish establishment, the JDL have been a thuggish, racist, force in Toronto for half a century. During a stint living in Toronto in 2014 I was shocked to see the JDL in action and it altered my perspective on what drives Canadian policy on Israel. Amidst Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza that left over 2,100 Palestinians dead that year, I was shoved, had my bike damaged and lock stolen by members of the JDL at a protest on the grounds of the Ontario legislature. The following day at Queen’s Park, a JDL member who worked with children at the Schwartz/Reisman Jewish Community Centre and was on a B’nai Brith softball team, Isaac Ezra Nacson, knocked a pro-Palestinian counter demonstrator to the ground and kicked him in the face. Half an hour after Nacson’s attack, a JDL member walked some 50 metres around a barricade to where I was standing alone chanting at the pro-war rally and spat on me three times. Both incidents were caught on tape by major media outlets, but little was done.
Since that time the JDL has engaged in numerous violent acts and deepened its ties to the racist, far right. In the highest profile incident, a mob organized by JDL Toronto attacked counter-protesters at the 2017 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in Washington, DC. They burned a Quran and tore a Palestinian flag. In the worst incident, a 55 year-old Palestinian-American teacher was punched, kicked and hit with flagpoles. Bruised across his body, Kamal Nayfeh needed 18 stitches around his eye. Thornhill JDL member Yosef Steynovitz was charged with assault causing significant injury and a hate crime.
Last summer JDL supporter Tamara Foster vandalized Foodbenders, a sandwich shop with “I Love Gaza” painted on its window. Similar to what Jewish supremacist settlers do to Palestinian homes in the occupied West Bank, Foster painted the Star of David onto the restaurant window. Soon after Foster’s vandalism, the JDL held a rally in front of the restaurant and during their hate fest they scrubbed off “Palestinian Lives Matter” and “Free Palestine” markings while making racist remarks.
As part of preparing a defamation lawsuit against the JDL on behalf of Foodbenders, lawyer Stephen Ellis has dug into the organization and its long-time leader, Meir Weinstein’s, history of violence and racism:
- In 1976 JDL members were arrested for setting off a bomb at the Toronto home of anti-Jewish mayoral candidate Don Andrews.
- Five years later the JDL announced its members were arming themselves and engaging in target practice in farms around Toronto, reported the Globe and Mail in a story titled “Leader of JDL says members arming selves”.
- In 1983 twenty JDL members “shouted, kicked doors and cut a television cable at the Willowdale home of Nicaragua’s Consul-General”, reported the Globe and Mail. They claimed the leftist Sandinista government was anti-Jewish.
- In 1986 JDL members attempted to assault anti-Semitic activist Terry Long.
- In 2001 JDL was thought to be responsible for death threats leveled against the pro-Palestinian Concordia Student Union.
- In 2007 two JDL activists were arrested for assaulting anti-Jewish activist Paul Fromm.
- In 2011 the RCMP launched an investigation against at least nine members of the JDL who were thought to be plotting to bomb Palestine House in Mississauga. On July 3, 2014 the JDL sparked a violent confrontation at Palestine House.
- Three years later, a JDL member assaulted journalist Kevin Metcalf and another made death threats against him as he was photographing a demonstration at Nathan Philipps Square.
- In the lead up to the 2019 Walk for Israel Weinstein publicly threatened to “break the legs” of anyone counterprotesting.
- Later in 2019 Weinstein shoved a demonstrator at York University and another JDL sympathizer threatened another student “if you do that, I’ll fucking step on your face”.
- JDL Canada maintains direct ties to extremist Jewish supremacists in Israel who have been attacking Palestinian citizens of Israel and chanting “death to the Arabs” in recent days. On a recent trip there JDL Canada’s number two, Zaza Vili, took pictures with supporters of the outlawed Kahane Chai party. For his part, Weinstein has repeatedly met Baruch Ben Yosef (Andy Green), who was jailed for plotting to blow up the Dome of the Rock in 1980 and is suspected in the 1985 murder of Palestinian American anti-discrimination activist Alex Odeh.
- During a 2015 meeting in Montréal Weinstein rejected a question about disassociating from the organization’s violent past by comparing himself and the JDL to Menachem Begin and the Irgun, an extremist Zionist group that launched numerous deadly terrorist attacks in the 1940s. On another occasion Weinstein responded to a question about whether it was a violent organization by comparing the JDL to a martial arts club.
- Group members are openly racist. In 2009 Weinstein joined and participated in a Facebook group called “Death to Arabs” and four years later he wrote on Facebook that violence is “in the Arabs DNA”. In 2010 Weinstein said, “if the Arabs won’t acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state, then they will have to go.” (Imagine someone saying, “if First Nations won’t recognize Canada as a white, Christian state, they will have to go.”) During a 2017 meeting Weinstein referred to Syrian refugees and other Arabs as “snakes” while a participant led the crowd in a chant of “No Arabs, No Terror” and “They Must Go, They Must Go.” At a counter protest to the 2017 Al Quds event in Toronto Weinstein claimed “these people [largely Muslim marchers] want us dead” to which someone among the JDL crowd yelled “we want them dead too.”
- The JDL has repeatedly disparaged the Black Lives Matter movement. In February 2020 Weinstein announced that the group would travel to New York City to confront black leaders who he claimed were “anti-Semitic”.
- Over the past decade the JDL has hosted numerous racist, far right, speakers. In 2011 they organized a support rally for the anti-Muslim English Defence League featuring known racist Tommy Robinson via Skype. JDL Canada has also hosted high-profile anti-Muslim activist Pamela Geller, as well as Robert Spencer and Andrew Bostom. In 2014 they hosted Moshe Feiglin who previously called Arabs “a gang of bandits that never produced anything and never wanted to produce anything” and whom the UK Home Secretary refused entry to Britain on the grounds he would likely “foment or justify terrorist violence”.
- In 2015 the JDL organized a meeting with a leader of the anti-Muslim group PEGIDA UK, Paul Weston, and in 2017 they hosted the National Citizens Alliance’s Stephen Garvey who told the crowd that “[Muslims] will never be Canadians.”
- To oppose the construction of a mosque in Newmarket, the JDL organized a town hall in the Toronto suburb in 2007. A decade later they held a demonstration against Motion 103, which they claimed was an effort by the Justin Trudeau government to introduce Islamic superiority. In 2018 the group organized an anti-Muslim rally after a mass shooting on the Danforth by a mentally unstable individual born to parents of Pakistani origin.
- In recent years the JDL has coordinated with various racist, far right organizations and individuals on different initiatives. In 2012 they allied with Mark Vandermas and Gary McHale who actively opposed justice for the Mohawks of Six Nations of the Grand River during the high-profile land dispute in Caledonia. They’ve worked closely with anti-Muslim activist, Sandra Solomon, and allied with the white supremacist Soldiers of Odin for a 2018 rally at Nathan Philips Square. During the 2018 Toronto mayoral election the JDL endorsed racist candidate Faith Goldy and made several appearances for her.
JDL Canada’s sister organizations in the US and Israel have been responsible for even more serious violence and hate crimes. In 2001 the FBI labeled the JDL a “right-wing terrorist group” after its members were convicted in a series of acts of terror, including the killing of the regional director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and a plot to assassinate a congressman. A member of the JDL’s sister organization in Israel, Kach, killed 29 PalestinianMuslim worshipers in the Cave of the Patriarchs Massacre in 1994. Kach was set up by Meir Kahane who also co-founded the JDL in the US.
In 1984 Weinstein tried to help Kahane enter Canada illegally after the federal government rejected the American’s admission to this country. At the end of the 1980s Weinstein sought to formally establish a Kach party in Canada.
In discussing Palestinian citizens of Israel, Kahane told a TV interviewer in 1990: “The only answer is OUT. I want them OUT. I want them out ALIVE and if not ALIVE, DEAD. But I want them out. Better a dead Arab than a dead Jew.”
After Kach member and former US JDLer, Baruch Goldstein, murdered 29 Palestinians JDL Canada refused to condemn the 1994 Hebron mosque massacre. Weinstein said, “our organization does not condemn the attack. It condemns the Israeli government for not providing adequate protection for settlers.”
Despite all this racism and violence, the JDL is tacitly or actively supported by much of the Canadian Jewish establishment and other powerful institutions. They have co-sponsored demonstrations with B’nai B’rith and provided “security” for pro-Israel rallies. The JDL participates in the annual Walk for Israel organized by United Jewish Appeal of Greater Toronto. In a bid to get the Toronto city council to block Al Quds Day in 2019, Weinstein coordinated with B’nai B’rith leader Michael Mostyn, Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) Vice President Noah Shack and city councillor James Pasternak, as highlighted in a photo of the four together at the city’s executive committee.
JDL has been allowed to recruit in Jewish schools and for many years the former head of the Canadian Jewish Congress, Bernie Farber, gave the group political cover. The same can be said for former Canada-Israel Committee board member Warren Kinsella, who spoke at a JDL meeting in 2009. These prominent liberals were fine with the JDL intimidating Palestinian solidarity activists but oppose its alliance with other racist, far right, groups.
Canadian Jewish News coverage of the group has often been sympathetic, including publishing video of a speech by Weinstein. In 2015 Barbara Kay penned a National Post column titled “In defence of the Jewish Defence League” and Honest Reporting Canada defended the group when the CBC’s coverage of them was critical. In 2017 the Toronto Sun published an article headlined “Jewish Defence League alleges hate crime” and after they stoked violence at York in November 2019 B’nai B’rith, CIJA and much of the rest of the Israel lobby accused pro-Palestinian activists of anti-Semitism. Despite much of it being caught on camera, JDL violence and racism was ignored.
In a similar vein, CIJA couldn’t bring itself to criticize the JDL thugs who beat a 55-year-old Palestinian professor and a younger Jewish activist outside AIPAC’s conference in 2017. Despite film of the attacks, CIJA spokesperson Martin Sampson responded to a National Post inquiry by simply stating, “the approach adopted by the JDL is not reflective of the mainstream Canadian Jewish community.”
The JDL has support at the highest levels of the Conservative party. During a 2015 meeting in Montréal JDL representative Julius Suraski claimed four Conservative MPs had recently attended a Passover dinner at his home. In 2014 former Prime Minister Stephen Harper brought Suraski on his official delegation when he traveled to Israel.
Considering their influence and racist, violent, ways there’s been far too little critical scrutiny or push back against the JDL. Yes, they have been banned from Facebook and Twitter on a number of occasions and York banned Weinstein from its campus. But the police have turned a blind eye to a number of their criminal acts and major media outlets and antiracist groups have generally ignored the JDL.
It’s time for this to change. The Jewish Defence League is a violent, racist, thuggish group that deserves to be treated like the dangerous, fascistic organization it is.
On Friday, May 21 at 7pm Yves Engler will be speaking at a Canadian Foreign Policy Institute event on “The Innumerable Ways Canada Supports Israeli Apartheid”